Council avoids hard-line position on gang-resistance funding

May. 28, 2014 @ 06:59 PM

Key City Council members were reluctant on Wednesday to slash spending on an in-schools anti-gang program to free Police Department resources for use elsewhere in the city.

Mayor Bill Bell and Councilman Don Moffitt said they would not want to take money away from the “Gang Resistance Education and Training” or GREAT program without knowing what else police commanders might use it for.

“I would need to know what those other things are before I’d be willing to take them out of the schools,” Moffitt said, alluding to the five officers the program assigns to local elementary schools. “If we can’t reduce our costs, where are we going with it?”

Bell said he’s also worried about the public-relations fallout, given the city leadership’s “role in trying to reduce crime” and “in trying to keep young people from getting into those areas.”

Moffitt and Bell were responding to a suggestion from Councilwoman Diane Catotti that the council end city participation in at least the elementary-school end of the program, which costs the Police Department $398,977 a year.

Four other officers work area middle schools; their continued involvement there was not at issue on Wednesday. They and a supervisor for the program cost the Police Department $429,646.

The GREAT program has been an issue for council members the past couple of years, as they’ve come to believe the Durham Public Schools are using it as cover to obtain in-school security from the Police Department.

DPS more openly relies on “school resource officers” from the Durham County Sheriff’s Office for its security needs. But it pays part of the cost of those deputies; it pays the city nothing for the officers the Police Department assigns to GREAT duties.

City Manager Tom Bonfield this year asked DPS to pick up $200,000 of the cost of the elementary-school GREAT officers. But school officials opted against including that in their fiscal 2014-15 budget.

As the council opened its fiscal 2014-15 budget deliberations, Catotti said she’s been skeptical of the program since her son went through it in the 4th grade, more than a decade ago.

And she pointed out that the council hasn’t given Bonfield the sort of backup he needs to negotiate a better deal for the city with DPS.

“Unless we say we won’t, they won’t,” she said of the chances of getting the school system to provide a contribution. “We’ve asked nicely, we’ve warned them for years. We just need to do it.”

But Councilman Steve Schewel, a former school board member, said he would favor taking only $200,000 from the program in fiscal 2014-15, rather than Catotti’s preferred $398,977, given that Bonfield had floated the lower figure in talks with DPS officials.

And before the discussion ended he backpedaled even on that, siding with the mayor and Moffitt in saying the council needs to know the Police Department’s plan for using any officers pulled out of GREAT.

But Schewel also said the fundamental point about DPS paying for in-school security stands.

“I’m disappointed that the system hasn’t seen fit to partner with us on this financially,” he said. “A lot of what these officers are doing in the schools are non-GREAT activities. They’re effectively being SROs. That’s a valuable function, but it isn’t one the city wants to pay for.”

The council deferred a decision on the matter, Bell saying he’ll raise it with school officials during an meeting next week of the board chairs and chief executives of the city, the county and DPS.